Steven Osborne plays Rachmaninoff – Piano Sonata No. 1, Moments Musicauz – Hyperion

by | Jan 28, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28; Prelude in D Minor; Oskolki “Fragments”; Oriental Sketch; Nunc dimittis from All-Night Vespers ; Moments musicaux, Op. 16 – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion CDA68365 (5/22) (73:36) [Distr. by PIAS] ****: 

Scottish virtuoso Steven Osborne (b. 1971) has consistently revealed a superior musical intelligence behind his fingers, as his 2013 recognition as the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year signifies. His carefully selected recital of music by Rachmaninoff (rec. 2-4 December 2020) combines potent, dramatic flair and a refined sensibility that allows the composer’s meditative – even pious – as well as bravura aspirations, to emerge.

Osborne begins with the 1907 Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, perhaps his most ambitious imitation of Franz Liszt, whom Rachmaninoff deeply admired. Specifically, the sonata was to assume the grand design of Liszt’s 1857 Eine Faust-Symphonie, after Goethe, with the same “program” of characters, Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The work had its premiere at the hands of Konstantin Igumnov, who had demanded extensive cuts in the original score – some 100+ measures – and still, the music resonates with passing allusions to the contemporaneous, piano concertos in C Minor and D Minor.  Rachmaninoff proves economical in his use of recurrent tropes that transmute in the course of all three movements: scalar patterns, intervals of the fifth, fierce trills, and repeated notes. Osborne imbues the opening Allegro moderato with a propulsive determination, offset by a chorale or chant impulse that inclines the Devil’s-bargain—making Faust aspire to a degree of hope for salvation, a glimmer of D Major in the movement’s epilogue. Through the swirl of passions, we hear echoes of Liszt, as in his own Dante Sonata, the anguished urge of contradiction in Faust’s soul, moving to a huge climax in huge chords from Osborne that, nevertheless, fails to resolve the Romantic Agony.

The Lento, proceeds momentarily in D, then settles into F Major, where Rachmaninoff employs stretto, polyphonic effects to overlap complementary and soothing motifs. The lyrical, nostalgic impulse in Rachmaninoff Osborne well nourishes in rich chords and glistening scales and arpeggios. Rachmaninoff exploits the interval of a fifth in rocking pulsations. This pastoral setting will move to a cadenza that leads to the music’s reprise of the opening. The swelling melody drips with impassioned allusions to the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. This music concludes in the manner of a duet between motives in the “Faust” first movement and the repeated tropes of Gretchen’s pleas and exclamations of devotion. The luxury of Osborne’s Steinway is resonantly captured by producer Andrew Keener.  

The expansive last movement, Allegro molto, allows Rachmaninoff to revel in the Lisztian fervors of an impassioned, demonic and frenzied gallop, like the Berlioz “Ride to the Abyss” from The Damnation of Faust. The tolling bells, reminiscent of the ubiquitous Dies Irae in this composer’s oeuvre, ripple through modal scales and brisk runs, making the three-note, gallop-march even more rhetorically manic. Including a lovely, delicately arpeggiated melody that arises, twice, in the midst of Faust’s imminent damnation, the music sings even as it manically plummets, the Dies Irae in the bass awaiting his fall. When that fall occurs, Faust has recalled past memories and regrets, a tearful preparation to concede his soul to the Devil. Osborne plays these pearly figures in the manner of an exalted etude-tableau, as Lisztian as it indicative of Rachmaninoff. Highly ornamented, the Dies Irae comes crashing down, now in a four-note pattern rife with the “Fate” of the Beethoven Fifth, so Faust’s pitiful shrieks for mercy have incurred only divine retribution in Osborne’s towering coda.

The Prelude in D Minor (1917; op. posth.) was published in 1973, a dark response to the events surrounding the Russian Revolution and its destruction of a way of life, embedding even further Stravinsky’s characterization of Rachmaninoff as “six feet of gloom”. The so-called “Fragments,” or shards of melody, appeared in 1919 in The Etude magazine, and its elusive, nebulous personality has more in common with a Scriabin miniature than is Rachmaninoff’s established wont. The Oriental Sketch, however, from the same period provides Osborne with a volatile etude, a toccata, really, that the composer premiered in 1931, motivating friend Fritz Kreisler to deem the volatile piece “The Orient Express.” The 1915 Vespers, Op. 37 by Rachmaninoff consists of texts from the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil, for a cappella chorus. Rachmaninoff arranged the fifth selection, Nunc dimittis (“Lord, let Thy servant now depart in peace”) for solo piano. Osborne intones a poignant, slow chorale, a lullaby, sung in the original by a tenor, while the accompanying passion rises and then dissipates, a reminder that Rachmaninoff requested this plaint for his funeral music.

The 1896 set of Moments musicaux would apparently claim Schubert as their predecessor, yet much of the Chopin style infiltrates these youthful exercises in establishing a definite personality in Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre. We hear echoes of both Chopin’s nocturnes and his etudes, at once intimate, brilliant, and melancholy. The third of the set, in B Minor, Andante cantabile, proffers the ubiquitous Dies Irae, from the Requiem Mass, the composer’s constant reminder of mortality. The first of the set, Andantino in B-flat Minor, sounds elegiac, varying its extended, melodic contour and underlying the melody with soft brush strokes. A model for its harmonic evolution seems to derive from Chopin’s Berceuse. The No. 2, Allegretto in E-flat Minor, declares Rachmaninoff’s mastery of bravura pianism, its plastic, surging motion reminiscent of the darker Chopin preludes, although more tempestuous in the manner of Liszt. Osborne plays the lament, the No. 3, with a haunted resonance, almost the equivalent of the great Largo in Chopin’s Third Sonata in B Minor.  Some find more correspondence in the song “Im Treibhaus” from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, a cry of desolation that makes its way into the opera Tristan und Isolde. 

The No. 4 in E Minor, Presto, serves as an emotional rebellion against the prior funeral march, a ferocious gesture that takes its cue from Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” or the Prelude No. 16 in B-flat Minor. The smashing octaves and manic runs testify to Osborne’s own capacity for voluptuous gestures in grand form. The No. 5, Adagio sostenuto in D-flat Major, has an immediacy of appeal of a Chopin Nocturne or Liszt Consolation. Osborne renders the piece in the manner of a richly vibrant barcarolle, caressing and consoling. Rachmaninoff opts for a grand finale in the major mode, Maestoso in C Major, already a volatile forecast of his mighty Etudes-Tableaux sets.  The heroic impulse triumphs over the tragic and nostalgic, the music rife with bell tones set in canon. The effect, rushing and vehement, asserts a will to mastery over form and circumstance, given that Rachmaninoff had to compose sellable pieces to compensate for having been robbed of his funds during a train trip.  Necessity, here, has been the mother of tempestuous invention. 

—Gary Lemco

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